Emma Stone and Hollywood’s Whitewashing Problem

Emma Stone - Aloha, Columbia Pictures

Source: Columbia Pictures

If there’s one black eye Hollywood has, it’s a long history of whitewashing dating back to the very beginning days of the film industry. Since as far back as the 30s, movies have been casting white actors in Asian, African-American, Hispanic, and Native American roles to an offensive extent. Despite the acknowledgment of this on numerous occasions, the trend has continued up until today. 40 to 50 years ago, while shameful, it made sense; segregation was still a reality, and the idea of racial sensitivity was a relative unknown. But to see it today is inexcusable, making it that much more baffling when Emma Stone was cast as an Asian-American and Hawaiian character in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha. 

The controversy surrounding Stone’s casting became the most talked-about aspect of Aloha upon its release, leading many wonder what Crowe was thinking. Why even try and pretend Emma Stone is anything but white? For one, it’s not like there’s a line around the block of A-list Asian/Hawaiian actors that could provide top billing for the role in lieu of Stone. Given that Cameron Crowe also wrote the movie in addition to directing, he didn’t have the role anything but white. But he chose to anyway, knowing full well that he’d have to cast someone white anyway. Here we have the core problem in Hollywood.

There’s no point in writing a minority role with a white actor in mind. It’s rarely (ever) ended in anything but an offensive and flat performance, and is never worth the controversy it inevitably drums up. Johnny Depp played Tonto (a Native American) in the Lone Ranger movie, and you can bet no one’s first reaciton was “Yes, that was the perfect casting for that role.” Or Jake Gyllenhaal playing Middle-Eastern royalty in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. Movies like this are vehicles for white actors because Hollywood doesn’t create an atmosphere where minority actors dominate the A-list, thanks in large part to constant whitewashing of roles.

For what it’s worth, Emma Stone was ignorant to the controversy surrounding her role in Aloha. In a recent statement, she admitted that she’d “learned on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood and how prevalent the problem truly is,” and that “it’s ignited a conversation that’s very important.” But then she went on to say something only served to further highlight the problem at play here: “The character was not supposed to look like her background which was a quarter Hawaiian and a quarter Chinese.”

The fact that a character whose ethnicity was half not-white, it boggles the mind to think why a screenwriter wouldn’t stop and think that maybe, just maybe that person shouldn’t be represented by a white actor. Otherwise, you’re better off not writing their ethnicity into the role in the first place, something that would have better served anyone in this specific example. In Hollywood though, the trend continues: Studios continue the feedback loop of white actors garnering a vast majority of the biggest roles, and that in turn leaves them with fewer options when a part for a minority crops up. They need to bill their movies with big names, but when all those names are white, they’re essentially tied their own hands.

There isn’t necessarily an end in site to this trouble trend. Hollywood has been nothing if not consistent in their whitewashing throughout the better part of the last several decades. But as long as the conversation is happening, change can at least be discussed moving forward. If this gets pointed and criticized every time it happens, eventually there will be enough public backlash to hopefully enact some real, actionable change. In the meantime, Emma Stone is what passes for Asian-American in modern Hollywood.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickNorthwest

More From Entertainment Cheat Sheet: